In East New York church, a talk about the `nones’


On a cold and windy Friday night in Brooklyn, about 140 18-to 35-year-olds piled into Christian Cultural Center’s young adult lecture hall to hear their pastor speak. The dimly lit room, styled similarly to a lounge with stadium-like seating, was ablaze with chatter.

On stage a live band played electrifying gospel sounds and the large flat screen monitors surrounding the room showed images of young teens doing different styles of dance ranging from fraternity-style stepping to breakdancing. The message emblazoned on the wall: “Be intentional about how you will influence the world by making lasting decisions every chance you get.”

Pastor A.R. Bernard, founder of the East New York megachurch had gathered some of the millennials in his congregation to engage them in an open forum session titled “Real Talk – Millennials of Faith.” It was a meeting that, perhaps by chance, coincides with the release of the Pew Research Center’s latest statistics on the changing religious landscape in America that show that an increasing portion of the U.S. population is moving away from organized religion and now identifying as religious “none.” According to the findings, millennials are driving the growth of this group.

“It is said that millennials are more accepting of the social changes in society. Is this also true of millennials of faith?” Bernard asked the group.

“I don’t force my beliefs on anyone,” one young woman in the audience responded. “I live out my life according to the Bible, but I don’t go around preaching to people or pushing the Bible in their face or telling them their lifestyle is wrong.” Bernard nodded slowly as if contemplating her response.

The group spent the next 90 minutes discussing a wide range of issues from racism to transsexuality and the struggle to maintain a Christian identity in an increasingly secular society.

“More and more, millennials are making the distinction between being spiritual and being religious,” Bernard said. “What they’re saying is they are divorcing themselves from organized religion and the institution of the church but they still want to think they have a relationship with God.”

The religious “nones,” as the Pew Research Center labels them, includes both the “spiritual but religious” as well as those who self-identify as atheists and agnostics.

While there are a number of reasons as to why the “nones” are growing, the authors of the center’s report say generational replacement plays a significant role. This is evident in the steady decline in the number of people who identify religion as important to their lives as the each new generation emerges. According to the Pew’s findings, two-thirds of adults in the generation born in the mid 1920s to early 1940s say religion is very important to them and they pray every day as opposed to 6 in 10 Baby Boomers and 5 in 10 Generation Xers.

The millennials show far lower rates of religious involvement with just about four in ten saying religion is important to them. Seven in 10 of the youngest millennials born between 1990 and 1996 with no religious affiliation say religion is not important to them and 42 percent of them say they do not believe in God at all.

Cornelius Sullivan, professor of sociology of religion at Brooklyn College, said he believes there are societal factors that are promoting this attitude.

“Science and our understanding of the universe and the evolution of man create a great deal of doubt in the minds of those who were brought up strictly religious,” Sullivan said. “Then there is the issue of the recent religious violence and conflicts that are causing millennials to question the idea of God.”

Citing societal reasons for his departure from church, Elston Wilson, 30, a college student majoring in accounting, said he grew up in a black Pentecostal church in Brooklyn and attended several times a week with his mother until his late teens. However, upon reaching adulthood, he began to question what he was taught about God.

“There’s ISIS killing people in the name of God, all these racist killings and the Bible promotes slavery, I just don’t know,” Wilson said. “I believe in something. Creation tells me there is a Supreme Being behind it. I just don’t know what to call him.”

Brooklyn College social psychology Professor Curtis Hardin said religious identity is usually bound up in parental relationships and so people are generally more committed to religion to the degree that their parents share that same religious experience and is usually stronger depending on how attached they are to their parents.

“Over the generations, as science and culture have peeled people away from traditional religious faith, there are fewer and fewer traditionally religious parents with whom to share religious experience,” Hardin said. “Put another way, there are more and more non-religious parents who not only do not teach or require children to be religious but who model, reward, and share non-religious views of the world with their children.”

The Pew findings have consistently shown that generations usually become less religious as time goes by and this could mean America is moving toward becoming a more secular society. According to the numbers, the proportions of “nones” who say they do not believe in God has grown significantly. One-third of young adults who previously claimed to be spiritual but not religious now say they do not believe in God, an 11 percent point increase since 2007.

“To me it’s actually more surprising that America’s generational turn away from religion has happened so slowly,” Hardin said. “The U.S. is virtually unique when it comes to religiosity in comparison to other fully developed countries around the globe. Other developed societies outside the Muslim world are vastly more secular and less religious than Americans.”

But Sullivan said this does not necessarily mean religion is weakening
in America. “The “nones” are a very mixed and moveable group in that some who do not affiliate now will affiliate later in their lifetime as they grow older, get married and have children.”

Recognizing the shift from religion, Bernard told his group he is dedicated to creating stronger millennials of faith, who have a strong sense of identity and purpose and who will not run away from their faith when challenged.

One of the ways he plans to accomplish this, he announced, is to convert one of the lecture halls into a black box theater, which will create a space for the young adults to hang out and have fun safely on the weekends.

The group cheered wildly.

“Millennials have flipped the script,” Bernard said. “In previous generations, church meant you fit into it – but now millennials want to know, how does church fit them?”

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